Regina Hall: ‘Master’

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Regina Hall in “Master”. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes back actress Regina Hall who’s currently starring in Mariama Diallo’s “Master,” a horror film about the first Black master of an elite fictional New England university. Hall’s other films include “Support the Girls” and “Girls Trip.” Hall is also co-hosting the 2022 Academy Awards on March 27 along with Wanda Sykes and Amy Schumer. Hall tells The Treatment she was struck by how many people have said they see themselves in one of the characters in “Master.” She says her mother passed away during filming, which gave her portrayal a sadness and gravity that came from her grief. And she says her upcoming co-hosting gig is both exciting and terrifying.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to the Treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell. I'm speaking to the busiest person in show business right now, Regina Hall, who's taking time from her busy schedule to talk to us about her new film, “Master,” and she’s a co-host of the upcoming Oscars. “Master”  is basically a horror movie about microaggressions. If you took the supernatural part of the movie out, it’s still pretty scary stuff, isn't it?

Regina Hall: I'm big on the horror genre, and using the academic world as a backdrop to have this social commentary on things that many of us have experienced. I just thought the way she did it was so clever, showing different realities of it through the different storylines between Jasmine and her storyline, this young, bright eyed freshman, and Gail. Everything feels hopeful. I mean, she's the first Black master, whatever that means. And then, of course, Liv, who has her own reality that she's actually wanting and going through herself.

KCRW: So many of the characters you’ve played have been pretty common sense kinds of people. And I think, for people watching, they may go, Wait, why isn't she saying something?

Hall: Well, I think we all know, it's not just easy to say something. Gail holds a lot of responsibility that many Black people feel, where they are feeling like they're supposed to remain objective. There's a lot of things going on with Jasmine that she doesn't know. But I think we are taught to endure. Sometimes we're taught to endure even more than we’re taught to complain. And so I think for her, she is saying something. She's saying, You're gonna have to be strong. You're gonna have to deal with this and take this, and this is what I endured, and you can, and you will be fine. I don't think she's not saying anything. I just think she does not know as much as Jasmine knows about what's going on. She knows what she went through, but she knows she got through it. And she also knows she's now the first Black master of a school, so for her, she's actually reaching a dream.

KCRW: The way the story is framed, when we meet Gail and Jasmine at the beginning, we almost wonder if we're watching a movie that's taking place in the past and in the present, if we're seeing maybe Gail as a younger person, but as the movie moves forward, we see that these things are happening in real time. But there is this idea that these things go way back to the past and also happening in the present, that's very much telegraphed really early on in the movie. 

Hall: I think that symbolically, we see that we are haunted by our history. We are haunted by our past. We don't address it; we move forward. Those things are haunting, and they cannot be ignored if we expect real change and real progress.

KCRW: You're talking about nuance, and this is a really nuanced piece of storytelling at least emotionally for you. When you saw the script, what did you think about playing this person who is kind of understanding of the institutional inertia that doesn't allow for change, but also has to get through it and try to support other people?

Hall: I liked it. I think so many of us do that, and in our world, I think so many of us work in those kinds of institutions when we go home, and we've realized what we've seen, what we were doing, but it doesn't mean don't push forward because you realize how important it was. So when I read Gail, there was a lot that I can identify with, certainly of my own experiences where I've been the Gail or the Jasmine. And, you do realize how subtle it is. Having the opportunity to be able to perform a nuanced performance, with Mariama really understanding what she really wanted from the film was a little bit scary, but also incredibly exciting to be able to create this character, but also, to be a part of creating this world where people who may see themselves and people who may have to acknowledge things. 

KCRW: The last time you were here, you came on for "Support the Girls," and you're playing a character, in some ways, similar, somebody who has to try to keep the humanity alive in an institution that doesn't often treat women or women of color, particularly kindly.

Hall: Yeah, it's true. I certainly respond to that: stories about humanity, stories, where there's an opportunity to show where, if we had a little bit more compassion, perhaps the film allows a little bit more insight, and more importantly, a wider perspective. And, many people have, whoever we're discussing, in "Support the Girls," through hard working women who worked in the restaurant and what it was like, for Gail, being Black in the world of academia. But yeah, I do respond to those stories because I feel like the humanity of these characters is so compelling.

KCRW: You get to respond as these characters kind of in real time. Certainly in "Support to Girls," it was a really compressed time period. And, in a lot of ways it is here, too, in "Master." And I wonder if that's one of the things that you like: that this has not spread out over a long period of time, but rather, in a pretty circumscribed period.

Hall: I suppose there is a bit of a ticking clock on those things. That probably is a coincidence. When I finished reading them. I just remember thinking about them still. I had a lot of questions and concerns. Not even concerns in a bad way, but more like questions. In "Support the Girls," I was like, wow, Lisa was just a good person, and the girls were just hard working. For Gail, there's so much going on with her, emotionally, and a weight of what she was carrying as a Black woman, the first Black master. The weight of what happened to Jasmine, I just felt like it was a tremendous weight on her shoulders, and the amount of responsibility that she felt in the beginning to the university into being objective. And then by the end too, the responsibility she felt to Jasmine and then ultimately, to herself.

KCRW: In "Support the Girls," she gets to be, well, just more supportive and to allow these young women working around her a chance to say everything, whereas, in the institution where Gail works in "Master," it's supposed to be about where people who are still kind of children have to act like adults right away. And there's not that kind of support. There's a real sink or swim aspect, for Gail, for Jasmine, that really heightens things. And it's kind of sad that a place that's supposed to make people into better people is a place that can be so hard on them.

Hall: Yeah, but I think you also have to look at the historical aspect.  Those places were never supposed to be better for all people. I mean, you had a whole movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that just started letting them in in the late '50s. And, then you add the issue of race in there, race and gender, so I don't think those institutions were necessarily thought of for us. And so it's a rethinking and re-shifting and a change in mindset that has to happen at such a core level. I think our expectation is that it was made for education or for learning, and thereby, that we're allowed to go, and it was made for us, but I don't know that that's 100% true.

KCRW: No, I guess I just think that the irony is that an educational institution is much more punishing than a strip club. 

Hall: Yeah, but certainly, an institution is only made up of the people inside of it. And I think when the institution has not looked historically at its issues, then even when times change, and they are moving to be more diverse and really unless we look at our core historically to understand what has been, that's the only way you're going to really be able to change. What's interesting for me, too, is how many people have endured that in schools, how many people that Mariama and I have spoken to her are like, wow, I saw myself in that role. I saw myself as Jasmine and some, I saw myself as Gail.

KCRW: When you read the script, what did you like about Gail, the character you play?

Hall: I don't know what I liked about her. I know what I responded to. I liked the idea of being the first Black master. I love the horror genre. I love the three…women. I want to say Black, but you know, you've seen the movie. But those three different representations that they all had, I think I liked everything as a whole. And I liked Gail's journey, in the beginning to where she ends up at the end.

KCRW: You often play characters like this, even to some extent, in "Girls Trip," people who, one brick after another after another after another, are piled on them. And we find ourselves as audiences wondering how much of this burden can they shoulder before they finally just respond to it. 

Hall: Yeah, it does kind of pile up. Trying to have her own sense, the students are having their own stuff that they’re dealing with. She's got a tenured professor who has her own thing going on. And then there's more and more discovery. I loved all of that. And I think, you know, being able to express what weight feels like, what weight is on a human being, human psyche. I don't know, I guess that is perhaps compelling too, for me to watch and to read, and ultimately to perform.

KCRW: What kind of films did Mariama respond to? Was it bigger horror things or did anything with smaller emotional stakes that build like "The Stepford Wives" come up at all?

Hall: She had films that she had us watch like, "The Others," a few Michael Haneke films, "Rosemary's Baby." She had a lot of films in there that were not necessarily American films that were European directors, and that necessarily wasn't about tone. It could have been about shots, things that she just found interesting, and that she liked. She wasn't responding to necessarily a genre that we see or it's going to be like that, but just almost the feeling of them.

KCRW: There's a scene you have near the end at a diner, where it's almost like a murder mystery. And, we're seeing Gail reacting to a ton of information coming our way at once. That seems like a really hard scene to play just because it's such a big reveal. 

Hall: There was a lot, and I do remember shooting that scene. Because you're not shooting in sequence, you're emotionally charting where you would be at that point in time. And I certainly tried to think about what it was to get there. But I do remember it was a lot to digest, and especially having looked at Liv and perceived her as such an ally.

KCRW: You’re talking about Liv and the character played by the amazing Amber Gray. Again, this is all about the pile up of Gail sitting and being told something and trying to figure out how she has to react or she's going to react this [best way] for the person she's talking to and also best for the institution and having to juggle these two things at once. 

Hall: Yeah, it's true. Amber's so talented and great. I remember reading the script, and oh, wait a minute, being really surprised and then actually meeting Amber and then watching the movie, and Gail having so many scenes, even the first scene when, she says to her, “I don't know, I just had the faculty meeting,” and, she's like, "I just felt..." and then you hear Liv, "like a house n-----?" I mean, it's just so not exactly what she was even thinking, but getting to the end and being like, okay, really? 

Amber was superb and I love [her] for that line in that role. It was another component, especially with the way she taught class and this critical race, but also another way of playing a system that is pivoting everything on diversity more than they are anything else, and that not being true either.

KCRW: It's just a piece of material that seems to ask so much of you, and just the amount of control required for Gail to have must have been exhausting to you by the end.

Hall: I will say that it was exhausting. It was a really fulfilling role, but it was an exhausting role because it was such an emotional roller coaster. My mom passed halfway through that film. There's so many scenes and I can of course, see them, where there was a sadness in me, a deep, profound sadness. 

That film just started off kind of like Gail's life. It started off with so much hope. So I'm excited to do the movie; I'm doing the movie. It's halfway through, and COVID happens. We kind of lose an entire year. One of our producers got really sick with COVID, but survived. We come back, we're doing it again. My mom passed 10 days, quite suddenly, into the finishing of the movie. That took me out for a second to come back and finish it. So the movie itself was already going through its own kind of ups and downs. I watch the movie, and I can experience my own grief. All those scenes of finding Jasmine and all of that stuff, actually, we had to reshoot a lot of it because the winter before that one was not snowy. This one was snowy, so we had to reshoot quite a bit. And all of that happened after my mom passed. So there is a profound, profound grief. 

KCRW: Wow, that explains a lot about what we're experiencing, watching the movie, all these questions I'm asking about: what she's going through in real time. We feel that, and now it's interesting to hear you talk about where all that weight comes from. I'm sorry, I have to make the least graceful pivot in interview history, but soon you'll be hosting the Oscars. How excited were you to get that call?

Hall: I was excited. Of course, it was bittersweet, as I wish my mother would have been here to celebrate, but it was very exciting. I'm a big fan of the two ladies, and it's terrifying. But it's also really exciting. It just is nice to see the Oscars with a host again, and it's great to be one of them. 

KCRW: I have to say I was thrilled when I heard that they were gonna bring you in to do this just because I think of your gifts as a performer are kind of about common sense, which serve you so well both in the movie "Master," but in so many things that you've done, and in terms of chemistry, just thinking about you and Wanda Sykes together. I was really happy for you, but thrilled that somebody had the foresight to choose you to do this.

Hall: You know, I was really surprised. I'm a big fan of Wanda. We did a film a few years ago together called "Breaking News in Yuba County," which was a lot of fun. So we were like, yes. And then [Amy Schumer] and it was Women's History Month. I didn't know who else it was going to be when I was first approached.

It's different for me. They're used to being on stage with thousands of people watching, so they're used to that live format, so it'll be a bit of a different beast for me, but I am surrounded by two pros, so I think they're gonna get me through it, but I'm very excited. It's exciting and terrifying. It must be like your first sexual experience. All good and all bad.



Rebecca Mooney